It can't get worse for UC -- can it?

Sunday, October 25, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[kenner]
Deontey Kenner is sacked by Shane Martinkovic and Mike Yeager (36).
(Ernest Coleman photo)

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If Rick Minter is ahead of anything right now, it is his own schedule. The University of Cincinnati football coach figured 1999 might be lean, but his hour of need is already at hand.

It can't get much worse unless the Bearcats are besieged by a plague of locusts or a pack of lawyers. It can't get much worse than Miami 41, UC 0.

"This really is a game of what have you done lately," Minter said Saturday afternoon. "People have short memories. One day you're drinking wine, the next day you're picking grapes. We're not even picking right now. We haven't found the field."

Ten months removed from their Humanitarian Bowl triumph, the Bearcats find themselves strangely revisiting Square One. Saturday's blowout was UC's eighth straight of a winless season, their most lopsided loss of an ancient rivalry, and a painful reminder that forward progress is promised to no one in college football.

The Bearcats imagined themselves better than this when they first assembled this fall. They thought of last year's bowl trip to the potato capital as a building block, only to discover their foundation was as flimsy as a french fry.

The defense Minter believed was "solid" has instead been soft. Experienced veterans have been replaced by callow kids. A football program perpetually climbing the ladder of respectability has returned to the bottom rung.

"We have to wonder where we are as a program," Minter said. "When you take a job, you don't ever envision having to rebuild it twice. But we are."

Except for the few perennial powers, college football success is a tenuous proposition. Terry Bowden, who won his first 20 games at Auburn, fell on his sword Friday after a 1-5 start. Gary Barnett, who became a genius by taking Northwestern to the Rose Bowl, is now being fitted for a dunce cap.

"If you look at our history," Minter said, "our opportunity for success has been very fragile, very fragmented. It comes and goes."

UC's margin for error is miniscule compared to that of more established powers, and its recruiting much more problematic. Most of the players Minter chases are not blue-chip prospects, but the fellows who fill out the fringes of Big Ten rosters. Even so, they don't all learn quickly and there are not enough of them to go around. Minter plans on recruiting between four and six junior-college defensive players this year, "just to get us off Gerber food."

He met reporters Saturday in a team meeting room in the Shoemaker Center. Above the red-trimmed doorways were large black letters: BELIEF, COMMITMENT, LOVE and TRUST. The words seemed more appropriate to a marriage counselor's office, and Minter sounded like a man in the midst of a therapy session. His frustrations spilled out in long paragraphs, his voice a melancholy monotone.

"We're not going to roll out the white flag," he said. "We're not going to surrender. There's no quit in this team. We're just not a very good team."

This much was plain long before Saturday's kickoff. Prospects of improvement grew so grim that several campus sportswriters pitched a tent on the roof of a Clifton pizza parlor Saturday morning and vowed to sleep there until the Bearcats win or their season ends.

"We've got five guys who are definite," said Jason Geil, the ringleader. "We're going to come down for class and for work, but we're going to be up there every night."

With the Bearcats off this week, and East Carolina next, the vigil figures to last at least a fortnight. With UC opponents averaging better than six yards per play, the gang of five might be on the roof the remainder of the schedule.

"We need to keep telling ourselves that we can still turn things around," said UC linebacker Hasson Champion. "(But) time is starting to run out on turning things around this season."

Next year might be lean, but it can't be more lousy.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE